I am very much looking forward to the release of new PorterGirl novel, Sinister Dexter – so much so that I can’t actually wait. Here, have a little look at the prologue…
Old College; Winter 1448
“Didn’t I warn you? Didn’t I tell you, Humphrey, never to mention their name!”
“But who are they, Mister Gunby? Who are The Vicious Circle?”
Roger Gunby pulled the brim of his hat down low over his eyes and shuffled towards the Lodge door, extinguishing the candles with a frosted breath and muttering to himself. Groping in the dark with numb fingers, the very first Head Porter of Old College fumbled with the latches until he was satisfied that the portal was secure. Dragging his feet in the manner of one who would rather be anywhere else, he returned to where Humphrey cowered at the back of the Lodge.
“This College has stood for not yet a year and already trouble stalks the cloisters,” hissed Gunby, his spittle-drench speech somehow managing to convey menace with barely a whisper. “Sit down.”
Humphrey dragged a three-legged stool to the scrubbed wooden table that served as desk, dining table and postal counter in the Porters’ Lodge. Gunby sloshed the dying dregs of tea in its pot, pouring himself a muddy mugful, but offering his subordinate-in-training nothing. Pulling up his own seat – one with arms and an extra leg, no less – something occurred to Gunby.
“I say, Humphrey – are there any of those little hard bread-things left in the tin?” he asked. “Those things that Maud from the kitchens brought to you the other day?”
“Maud calls them gingerbreads, Mister Gunby. She says they are for the purpose of aiding the digestive system,” Humphrey replied. “There are none left, I am sad to say.”
“No matter. Our digestion is the least of our worries.”
Humphrey sighed. After years as serving as dogsbody for The City Minister, he thought that joining the new and forward-thinking educational establishment of Old College would provide a welcome respite from the cruel and archaic ways of the church. Little did he know that the Order of the Lesser Dragon, the shadowy and secret society that founded Old College, had ways about them that were crueller and even more archaic; an institution older than even organised religion that was now seeking to reclaim the power and influence it believed to be rightfully its own.
The fresh and innovative educational methods – which focused on science and facts, shining bright lights into the dark corners and shaded recesses inhabited by those led mindlessly by the ignorant hand of religion – had upset many within The City and beyond.
Grumblings and grim words against Old College spewed forth from the church and even the palace, but The Master, the fearsome Lord Arthur Layton, was adamant that the will of the Order of the Lesser Dragon was pure and they sought only to lead a new generation to prosperity through enlightenment.
None of which was of much interest to Humphrey Babthorp, who had taken the role of Gunby’s assistant with the hope of fewer early mornings and three square meals a day from the College kitchens. In fact, he got a great deal more from the College kitchens, thanks to the freely available hospitality of the maid, Maud. Such things had never been on offer at Little Saint Mary’s Chapel and, indeed, if they had been he would no doubt have found himself condemned to an eternity of fire and brimstone. The church was quite keen on fire and brimstone, but as a prospect it always seemed to feature in a dim and distant future. The fiery wrath of the Order of the Lesser Dragon was forever just around the corner.
“Chidiock Folifait, him that digs the holes, it was him that made mention of them, Mister Gunby,” Humphrey whispered in the dark, the outline of his companion only just visible in the gloom. “When that young Ralph Eels ended up in one of his holes, he said it was The Circle that put him there.”
“And well they might, for his sins,” replied Gunby, sipping at the cold and stewed tea.
“But I thought it was him that painted that magnificent portrait of Lord Layton?” said Humphrey, creasing his brow. “It was a fair work of art, that, I’ve never seen a likeness so beautiful.”
“Aye, you’re right, it is at that. And it’s not only the likes of thee and me that think so. Lord Simon from next door was most taken with the handiwork of young Eels.”
“Lord Simon? The Master of Hawkins College?”
“Aye, the same. He was so impressed by the painting of his good friend Lord Layton that he asked him to send the artist to him right away, so that he could have his own likeness committed to canvas in a glorious manner similar.”
“What wonderful news for Ralph,” exclaimed Humphrey. “To have his work so admired and to be in such demand by the notable dignitaries in The City!”
“Alas, no!” Gunby shook his head. “It was dreadful luck for young Eels. You see, Lord Layton is a vain and selfish creature, who could not bear for anyone – not even his own friend – to share in such a flattering talent. He wanted his painting to be the finest in the land and so refused to send the artist to Lord Simon.”
“How very mean-spirited!”
“But worse was to come,” Gunby continues. “When Eels got word of Lord Simon’s wishes, he went there himself to seek the commission. When Lord Layton heard of this, he was furious. He believed Eels to be slighting his honour and accused him of malicious intentions towards the reputation of Old College…”
“But that cannot be right, Mister Gunby!”
“Maybe it isn’t right, but it was what Lord Layton declared. And the Order of the Lesser Dragon does not take kindly to besmirching against them.” Gunby leaned his bulk across the little table until his lips were almost touching Humphrey’s ear. “Within their ranks there are those who… eliminate such besmirchers.”
“You mean The Vi…”
“Hush, you fool!” growled Gunby. “Even the mere mention of their name can bring them running! Their unswerving loyalty to The Master makes them most dangerous indeed. Even one of their own Order, an unfortunate fellow named Faldo, could not escape their reach. You can find him now beneath our very feet, in the foundations of this very building.”
Humphrey gasped and shivered against the cold, but it was the chill within that shook him most.
“But Mister Gunby, The Master says that Old College is for the new ways, to teach what is right and proper to the next generation!”
“And that is so, Humphrey. That is so.”
“But this… revenge and… it’s all just so very wrong!”
“Hush once again, idiot! The Master is never wrong.”
“But you agreed that what he did wasn’t right?”
“Just because something isn’t right, Humphrey, doesn’t make it wrong.” Gunby’s breath hung in the air between them.
“The opposite of right is wrong, Mister Gunby,” said Humphrey, quizzical in the darkness.
“Not always,” Gunby replied. “Sometimes, the opposite of right is left. It is all a question of perspective, Humphrey.”
Gunby placed his palms flat on the table and hauled himself to his feet. He shuffled over to the door and fumbled once more with the latches. Heaving open the wooden door, icy knives of night air stabbed their way in from outside and Humphrey shivered again. Stepping across the threshold, Gunby turned to his assistant once more.
“Remember that, Humphrey – it is all a question of perspective.”